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Zero to One by Peter Thiel.
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In Zero to One, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel contends that creating new things is the best way to profit economically, as well as the only path for human progress.

However, technology has stagnated today. Much of what we do repeats or builds on what’s been done before. It’s easier to copy something than to create something new. This moves the world from 1 to n, refining something that already exists. However, creating something entirely new moves us from 0 to 1.

Unless companies create new things, they’ll eventually fail regardless of how profitable they are today. There’s a limit to what we can gain by refining things, a point at which best practices won’t get us any further. We need to break new ground.

The Path of Progress

Progress can be either horizontal or vertical. Horizontal or expansive progress results from duplicating success—going from 1 to n. This kind of progress is easy to envision because it looks a lot like the present. Vertical or intensive (focused) progress requires doing something entirely new—going from 0 to 1. It’s more difficult to envision because we’ve never seen it before.

For example, starting with one typewriter and building 100 of them would be horizontal progress (duplicating something). Starting with a typewriter and building a word processor would be vertical progress (creating something new).

Globalization is horizontal progress—it entails taking something that works in a particular place and replicating it everywhere. For instance, China’s 20-year plan is to be like the West is today.

Technology, going from 0 to 1, is vertical progress—it encompasses anything new and better, including but not limited to computers.

Continued globalization isn’t feasible without technological progress because the industrialization of more countries will lead to more environmental problems and competition for limited resources. For instance, if China doubles its industrial production without technology improvements, it will double its air pollution. Spreading the practices of developed countries globally will bring devastation rather than wealth. The key to a better future is both imagining and creating the technologies to get us there.

Startup Lessons

Startups consisting of a few people with a common mission are the source of most new technology. But many tech startups today are hobbled by four erroneous lessons drawn from the 1990s dot-com bubble and crash:

  1. Make incremental advances: Be wary of big visions that drive bubbles. Move forward with small, incremental steps.
  2. Stay lean and flexible: To stay lean and flexible, don’t tie your hands with planning. Instead, try things and iterate or build on the ones that work.
  3. Build on the competition: Don’t try to create new markets. Build your business by improving on a product people are already buying from someone else.
  4. Focus on product, not sales: If you have a good product, it should spread virally without a need for advertising.

Tech startups treat these lessons as sacrosanct, but they actually undermine success, especially big innovations. The opposite of each lesson is more accurate:

  1. It’s better to be bold than inconsequential.
  2. A bad plan is better than none.
  3. Don’t compete: competition destroys profits.
  4. Sales strategy matters as much as product.

Monopolies and Competition

Monopolies are good for society. While it may seem counterintuitive, they can be more ethical, treat workers with greater consideration, and create more value than companies locked in competition do.

Competitors are caught up in a daily struggle for survival. For instance, with their low margins, restaurants have to do everything possible to minimize expenses—which can include paying minimum wage to employees and putting family members to work for nothing. In survival mode, money is everything.

In contrast, in a monopoly where profits are assured, there’s room to consider other things besides money. For instance, lacking intense competition, Google can give consideration to its workers, its products, and its impact on society.

Monopolies’ bad reputation comes from sometimes earning outsized profits at the expense of society. Certain monopolies corner the market on something that’s needed and jack up the price; customers have no choice but to pay it. This works for the owners in a world where nothing changes, like in the game of Monopoly, where you control as much real estate as you can, but you can’t create new real estate.

In contrast, creative monopolies do good and drive social progress because they operate in a different environment, a dynamic one. Instead of controlling all the options like Monopoly real estate, they create new options. They expand consumers’ choices by creating new categories of things. By adding value, creative monopolies make society better.

Monopoly Characteristics

Monopoly businesses with strong future cash flows share several characteristics:

  • Proprietary technology: This may be your greatest possible asset because it makes your product difficult to copy. For example, proprietary technologies used in Google’s search algorithms for aspects such as query autocompletion make the search engine hard to replicate. For proprietary technology to give you a monopolistic edge, it needs to be at least 10 times better in some major way than anything like it. Anything short of a dramatic difference will seem incremental and unimportant.
  • Network effects: A network effect is the way additional users improve the value of a product or service for all users. For example, the more your friends use Instagram, the more value you get from being on it too. To generate network effects, your product has to be immediately valuable to its earliest adopters and then grow from there. A network business has to work on a small scale before it can go big—in fact, you have to...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Introduction

Some animals have a drive to build things like dams but only humans have the ability to invent entirely new things. In Zero to One, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel contends that creating new things is the best way to profit economically, as well as the only path of human progress.

This book, written with Blake Masters, is about launching companies that create new things. It stems from a course Thiel taught at Stanford in 2012 on startups. Masters was a student in the class and his notes, which were widely shared online, evolved with Thiel’s collaboration into this book.

The ideas are drawn from Thiel’s...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 1: The Challenge of the Future

Thiel likes to ask job candidates what he calls a contrarian question: “What important truth do few people agree with you on?” The best answers point to the future.

Thiel’s answer is that most people think globalization will dictate or determine the world’s future, but he believes it’s technology that will.

The future will be rooted in today’s world, but different. It may be farther away or closer than we think, depending on the degree of progress we make. If things aren’t likely to change much over the next century, then the future is a century away; If they’re destined to change rapidly in the next decade, then the future is a decade away.

Answering the contrarian question is the closest we can come to predicting what will be.

The Path of Progress

Progress can be either horizontal or vertical. Horizontal or expansive progress results from duplicating success—going from 1 to n. We can easily envision this kind of progress because it’s much like the present. Vertical or intensive (focused) progress requires doing something new—going from 0 to 1. It’s more difficult to envision because we’ve never seen it before.

For example, starting with one typewriter...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 2: Lessons of the Dot-Com Bubble

Remember the question, “What important truth do few people agree with you on?” To get an answer that points to the future, start with another question: “What does everyone agree on?”

The real truth is often the opposite of what everyone agrees is true. When you’re blinded by the latest conventional wisdom, you can’t create anything new.

Conventional wisdom helped create the dot-com bubble. The basic principle that companies need to make money was replaced in the late 1990s by a delusion that became the new conventional wisdom: companies racking up enormous, unending losses are actually succeeding because the losses are investments in future success. In the “New Economy,” where no loss was too big to tolerate, page views became a more relevant metric than profits.

We understand how wrong these accepted beliefs were only in retrospect. When they fall apart, we refer to the delusional beliefs as a bubble. But bubbles continue to influence our thinking long after they collapse because we draw the wrong lessons from them.

The tech bubble of the 1990s was the biggest bubble since the one ending in the Wall Street crash of 1929—the “lessons” of the dot-com dictate the way we...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 3: Myths about Competition and Monopoly

Anyone considering a startup should ask: “What valuable company hasn’t been built yet?”

Some companies create value without being valuable (profitable), but that isn’t enough to be successful (sustainable). A company has to accrue some of the value it creates.

Airlines in 2012 were a prime example of companies that create value without keeping much—they served millions of passengers, creating value of hundreds of billions of dollars, but made little money per passenger. While airfare averaged $178 each way, they made 37 cents per passenger trip. In contrast, Google created less value but brought in far more money—more than 100 times the airline industry’s profit margin that year. Google is worth more than three times the airline industry.

The difference is their markets: the airline industry is competitive, while Google benefits from monopoly status.

Perfect Competition

Economists have two models for markets: “perfect competition” and monopoly; perfect competition is considered to be the ideal.

Perfectly competitive markets are balanced: supply matches demand. The products are basically the same regardless of which company sells them. The price is whatever the...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 4: Destructive Competition

The myth of healthy competition persists because competition is an ideology deeply embedded in our society. Because it distorts our thinking, it’s destructive to businesses and people. We preach and believe in competition, internalizing its commandments. But we get less, rather than more, when we compete.

The obsession with competition starts in the school system. We pit students against each other with grades. We minimize differentiation among students (like we do with business commodities in a competitive market) by teaching everyone the same subjects in the same way, regardless of individual learning styles and talents.

Students with top grades advance to higher education, where competition intensifies. High school dreams die and students become conformists, competing intensely for a leg up in conventional careers like investment banking. On the job, they compete for the same trappings of success. However, by being totally focused on competition, they lose out on the chance to do or create something new.

War and Business

In the workplace, war metaphors abound: we refer to headhunters, our sales force, captive markets, strategy, market penetration, and making...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 5: Building for Future Profits

A monopoly by definition has avoided competition, but to be a great business, there’s more: it must last into the future.

To understand how this works, compare the New York Times Company with Twitter. Each employs thousands of people and delivers news to millions. However, in 2013, Twitter was valued at $24 billion, which was 12 times the Times’ market capitalization. Yet the Times earned $133 million in 2012, while Twitter lost money. How could the money-losing Twitter be worth more than the money-gaining Times? (Shortform note: market capitalization is the total value of a company's shares of stock.)

The reason for the dramatic difference in value is cash flow—the hallmark of a great business is its ability to generate future cash flow. Investors expected Twitter to generate monopoly profits for the next 10 years, while investors believed the New York Times lacked that ability.

A business’s current value is the sum of the profits it will earn throughout its lifetime. Low-growth businesses are those like newspapers that aren’t expected to grow dramatically in the future—most of their value is near-term. They might retain their value and keep current cash flows for...

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Shortform Exercise: Monopoly Profits

How your company chooses and expands its markets is critical to its success. You should target a small niche that you can dominate, then slowly expand to related markets and eventually larger markets while maintaining monopoly control.


Think about your business or a potential future business. How would you define the market (target customer and size, other potential players)? How could you check to make sure that your intended market actually exists?

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 6: Success Comes from Planning

Businesspeople debate whether success comes from luck or design. Some popular writers and leaders emphasize luck and downplay the importance of design or planning in contributing to success. This makes many people think planning—trying to shape the future—is pointless.

For instance, author Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers that success results from “lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages.” Warren Buffett notes that he was lucky to be born with certain qualities. Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates both claim luck played a role in their success.

It’s possible luck could play a role in an individual success, but luck isn’t sufficient to explain how the same person—for instance, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs—could achieve a series of extraordinary, multibillion-dollar successes.

When Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, tweeted in 2013 that “Success is never an accident,” most of the responses were dismissive, citing white male privilege over intelligent planning as the biggest factor in success. However, while connections, wealth, and experience—and luck—can be factors, in recent years, we’ve tended to ignore or overlook the importance of planning.

In the past, people...

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Shortform Exercise: What’s Your World View?

If you’re optimistic, you tend to think of the future as definable and definite, as something you can understand and shape. If you’re a pessimist, you think of it as uncertain and indefinite; since it's random, you can’t intelligently predict or plan for it.


What’s your view of the future? Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 7: The Power Law

The power law is the key to understanding how a handful of startups achieve exponential success. But it’s so interwoven into our social and natural worlds that people often don’t recognize it when it’s operating.

The power law describes a common phenomenon in which small changes can have disproportionate results.

The Pareto Principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto, is an example of a power law. In 1906, he determined that 20% of the people in Italy owned 80% of the land. Also, called the 80-20 rule, the principle applies everywhere in nature and society. In his garden, Pareto found that 20% of the peapods produced 80% of the peas.

Compounding interest is also a power law. In fact, compounding is such a powerful concept that Albert Einstein is erroneously credited with calling it “the most powerful force in the universe” and “the eighth wonder of the world.”

This chapter shows how the power law works in the world of startups and venture capital. Venture capitalists invest in startups in the hope that in a few years, a company will “take off” and the investor will profit from the spurt in growth. However, some companies will grow more than others.

**The power law...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 8: The Value of Secrets

Creating a great business that no one else can compete with starts with discovering and building on a secret—it can be an untapped opportunity or a different way of looking at a problem. This chapter suggests ways to think about secrets and how to find them.

There’s a lot we don’t understand or haven’t thought of. Some secrets may be unfathomable, for instance string theory, the so-called Theory of Everything, which describes the universe in terms of strings. However, other secrets are challenging but still discoverable.

For example, the business version of the contrarian question—”What valuable company hasn’t been started yet?”—is challenging but answerable. As long as there are secrets to discover, there are revolutionary companies to start.

Our Vanishing Sense of Mystery

Today, most people act as if there isn’t anything left to discover; they simply accept conventional wisdom.

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski wrote a “manifesto” arguing that people are depressed because all of the world’s challenging problems have been solved. He claimed people need challenging goals to work for, but only easy and impossible problems are left and addressing those is pointless. So he...

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Shortform Exercise: Thinking Unconventionally

Building a great company requires out-of-the-box thinking rather than following conventional wisdom. Often the truth is the opposite of what everyone believes.


Make a list of the most common conventional beliefs you’ve heard at your company (things that are assumed to be true) about its product(s) and market.

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 9: Building a Strong Foundation

While all startups are different, every startup needs to get certain things right at the outset because it’s impossible to fix them later. Put another way, “Thiel’s Law” states that a startup with a flawed foundation can’t be repaired.

Whether you’re building a business, a house, or a country, what you do at the beginning determines how well your creation will hold up in the future. America’s founders spent months at the Constitutional Convention debating fundamental questions of how government should be structured—for instance, how congressional representation should be set up.

Since then, structural changes have been difficult and rare. Since the first 10 amendments (the Bill of Rights) were ratified 1791, the Constitution has been amended just 17 times. While the system of apportioning congressional seats is problematic today—for instance, California has the same representation as Alaska although its population is much greater—change is unlikely.

Similarly, what you do when starting a company can be difficult to change later if it turns out to be wrong—for instance, picking the wrong co-founders or directors can be hard to correct except possibly in a crisis scenario...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 10: Building a Cohesive Team

We often think of coworkers as people we need to get along with at work, but don’t have to like or befriend outside of work. This is considered being professional—but it’s not the way to run an extraordinary startup.

When you’ve discovered a new niche market, you need to move quickly to dominate it and distance your company from potential competition. To move fast with maximum productivity, you need a tight-knit and extremely dedicated team—people with more than just a transactional relationship with each other.

Many tech companies think the way to attract recruits and build a committed culture is by offering perks, such as free laundry pick-up, yoga and massages, an on-site chef, pet day care, and so on. But perks have no value unless they’re backed with substance. Further, culture is something a company is, not something it has. A company is a group of people pursuing a mission; its culture is how they do that.

Beyond Professionalism

The first team that Thiel built became known as the “PayPal Mafia” because so many early employees established lasting relationships and went on to help each other start great new companies. Among them were seven new companies...

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Shortform Exercise: Building a Team

Thiel argues that startups should choose people for their initial team who are as similar as possible to enable the team to work cohesively and efficiently from the start.


In building a team for your company or a potential new business, what common qualities would you look for?

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 11: If You Build it, You Still Have to Sell It

Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs underestimate the importance of distribution, which encompasses whatever it takes to sell your product (advertising, sales, marketing, and distribution channels). But understanding distribution and having a plan for it is critical to a company’s success⁠—it should be part of designing your product.

We often overlook the importance of distribution because society in general looks down on salespeople and advertising as dishonest and manipulative. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs take this a step further—because of a bias toward building rather than selling, they often believe their product is so superior it should sell itself: if they build it, customers will come.

But customers won’t buy your product automatically; you have to sell it, which is more challenging than many entrepreneurs and engineers realize.

The Hidden Art of Selling

Silicon Valley “nerds” should care about advertising because it works—or it wouldn’t be a $150 billion industry that employs more than 600,000 people.

But sales works differently than many people think. They think they’re not influenced by pitches because they don't run out and buy the advertised items. But...

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Shortform Exercise: Your Distribution Plan

Some entrepreneurs develop a great product but fail to plan for its distribution, or the process for selling the product (advertising, sales, marketing, and distribution). But customers aren’t going to buy it automatically. Distribution should be part of your product design.


Think of a product you currently sell or a potential product. What are your current or planned methods for marketing/selling it?

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 12: Will Computers Replace Us?

A Forbes magazine headline once asked: “Will a machine replace you?” It’s a question people often ask as computers get more powerful and more effective at performing human tasks. At the extremes, futurists almost hope computers will replace human workers, while Luddites want society to stop creating new technology because of that fear.

But it won’t happen because computers complement human abilities—they don’t substitute for humans. In the future, the most valuable businesses will be the ones that use technology to help and empower people to do things better, not replace them.

Substitution and Complementarity

We’ve seen that humans can replace or substitute for each other as a result of globalization—for instance, Indian, Chinese, or Mexican workers can replace American workers in manufacturing and customer service.

Americans fear technology will one day do the same thing—for instance, giant server farms will take over work people are doing. But these scenarios are different. In a global marketplace, people compete with each other for jobs and resources, but computers don’t compete with humans for either one—again, they complement people by increasing their...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 13: Making Green Tech Work

The start of the 21st century was marked by a boom in clean technology, spurred by several high-profile environmental disasters: smog in Beijing that was so bad people couldn’t see or breathe, arsenic polluting the water in Bangladesh, and blockbuster hurricanes in the U.S (Ivan and Katrina) prompting worries about future effects of global warming.

Entrepreneurs launched thousands of green technology companies and investors kicked in more than $50 billion. However, the rush to cleantech created a bubble. Most cleantech companies failed—Solyndra was one of the most notorious. When the maker of solar panels collapsed it left taxpayers on the hook for over $500 million. Over 40 solar companies folded or filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Conservatives blamed the crash on government involvement. In reality, most cleantech companies crashed because they failed to adequately address the seven questions crucial for new companies:

  1. Engineering: Is your technology a significant advance or only incremental improvement?
  2. Timing: Is this the right time to sell this technology?
  3. Monopoly: Are you targeting a big share of a small market?
  4. People: Do you have the right...

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Shortform Exercise: Startup Success

To succeed, a company must have solid answers to the following questions: Engineering: Is your technology a significant advance or only an incremental improvement? Timing: Is this the right time to sell this technology? Monopoly: Are you targeting a big share of a small market? People: Do you have the right people on your team? Distribution: Do you have a plan to market and sell your product? Durability: Will you dominate your market in the next 10 to 20 years? Secret: Have you identified a unique opportunity overlooked by everyone else?


Answer the above questions for your company or a potential future business.

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 14: Eccentric Founders

The six people who started PayPal were eccentric: they had unconventional backgrounds and sometimes strange interests (four of them built bombs in high school). However, for the tech world, PayPal’s founders weren’t that unusual: tech entrepreneurship and eccentricity seem to go together. This can be mostly a strength if it doesn’t get out of hand.

Many founders have traits that are both extreme and paradoxical. For instance, they may be:

  • Cash poor but millionaires on paper
  • Obnoxious but also charismatic
  • Insiders and outsiders
  • Both famous and infamous

Sometimes founders purposely exaggerate certain traits, or their admirers exaggerate them to build a myth. Other times, founders are just “naturally” extreme—they’re unusual from the beginning and seem to get more unusual as life goes on.

Examples of eccentric founders include:

Howard Hughes, who died in 1976, was known during his era as one of the richest people in the...

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Zero to One Summary Zero to One Guide Chapter 15: Four Views of the Future

There are four ways of thinking about the future, according to philosopher and Oxford professor Nick Bostrom:

1) Recurrent collapse: It will follow a historical pattern alternating between prosperity and ruin or collapse. This was the view of ancient people. Since we’re in prosperity today, humanity’s next cycle will be collapse.

2) Plateau: The future will look a lot like the present as poor countries catch up with rich countries and the world reaches a plateau of development. Many people hold this view today.

3) Extinction: The world may experience a catastrophe too big to contain and survive, given our global interconnectedness and weapons of mass destruction.

4) Takeoff: Humanity is readying for takeoff toward...

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Shortform Exercise: What Company Could You Build?

A key question that Thiel poses to entrepreneurs is, What valuable company hasn’t been started yet? Answering it requires discovering a secret—for instance, seeing untapped potential or solving a problem by looking at it in a new way.


Think of a problem, inconvenience, or opportunity you encountered in the past week. What was it?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Challenge of the Future
  • Chapter 2: Lessons of the Dot-Com Bubble
  • Chapter 3: Myths about Competition and Monopoly
  • Chapter 4: Destructive Competition
  • Chapter 5: Building for Future Profits
  • Exercise: Monopoly Profits
  • Chapter 6: Success Comes from Planning
  • Exercise: What’s Your World View?
  • Chapter 7: The Power Law
  • Chapter 8: The Value of Secrets
  • Exercise: Thinking Unconventionally
  • Chapter 9: Building a Strong Foundation
  • Chapter 10: Building a Cohesive Team
  • Exercise: Building a Team
  • Chapter 11: If You Build it, You Still Have to Sell It
  • Exercise: Your Distribution Plan
  • Chapter 12: Will Computers Replace Us?
  • Chapter 13: Making Green Tech Work
  • Exercise: Startup Success
  • Chapter 14: Eccentric Founders
  • Chapter 15: Four Views of the Future
  • Exercise: What Company Could You Build?